'Islamic bomb' casts a long shadow

An Islamist revolution in Pakistan keeps security analysts up at night.

Musharraf 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Musharraf 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The resignation of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Monday has reignited concerns among some security analysts who say the prospect of an Islamist revolution in Pakistan - which is the world's sole nuclear-armed Muslim state - keeps them up at night. Dr. Ely Karmon, an expert on Islamist movements and their drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction, says radical Pakistani Islamists have set themselves the goal of gaining access to Pakistan's estimated 80 to 90 nuclear bombs, an arsenal they call "the Islamic bomb." But he notes that there's a "large distance between Pakistan and Israel," adding that when it comes to Pakistani instability, India is justifiably the most concerned onlooker. At the same time, if jihadis do take control of Pakistan, Israel would have good reason to worry, he says. "Pakistan does not control parts of its territory. There are tribes allied to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and very signficant Islamist movements consisting of hundreds of thousands of members," Karmon said. "These are no less extreme than al-Qaida itself. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has maintained close connections with these elements, and has encouraged the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamists in Kashmir," Karmon said. During Musharraf's reign, Pakistan opted many times to appease rather than fight jihadis, which had infuriarated the Americans, Karmon said. Musharraf's departure could see either of the two main contenders for power, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto, forge even closer links to Islamists, Karmon warned. "This instablity is influencing control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal," along with the country's long-range missiles. An Islamist revolution in Pakistan would endanger "not only Pakistan's neighbors but also longer-range states. Pakistani Islamsits clearly see Israel as a central enemy." Furthermore, the Pakistani army, which has traditionally played a balancing role in Pakistani power disputes, "has been infiltrated by Islamists." Throw into the mix the fact that two leading Pakistani scientists have been found to cooperate with al-Qaida members, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and one can see why Pakistan's instablity is holding the attention of Western governments. Should Pakistan lurch towards an Islamist regime, al-Qaida would become more of a threat than Iran, Karmon said. There was little Israel could do to avoid such a scenario, he added. But such scenarios are not at the top of Israel's worry list, according to Ephraim Kam, an expert on Iran and the deputy head of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "The fact that Pakistan has had a nuclear program for a few years is not seen by Israel as a threat to it," he said. "The main reason is because these weapons are aimed at India. The bombs are more Pakistani than Islamic," he said. That could change if an Islamist revolution took hold in Pakistan, Kam added, saying it was possible that Iran would seek to change its relationship with Pakistan from one of mutual suspicion to an alliance. "Iran could try to expand its axis eastwards if Islamsits seize control," he said. Pakistan's nuclear program may be linked to the Middle East in a more direct way: Some senior Israeli and Western experts have come to believe that Saudi Arabia funded some or most of Pakistan's nuclear arms, as part of the kingdom's attempt to secure its own nuclear shield. "The Saudis may have some kind of agreement with Pakistan over nukes, as the Saudis can't produce them themselves," one analyst told the Post. "This is a reasonable belief," he added. But a hidden American hand may have the power to prevent any unwanted Pakistani nuclear activity, according to foreign media reports. Last year, The New York Times reported that the US had spent nearly $100 million in a secret program to train and equip Pakistani personnel in properly securing their country's nuclear weapons. Citing unnamed US administration officials, the Times reported that the money was allocated in a secret part of the US budget, and included funding for construction of a nuclear security training center in Pakistan. Much of the funds went to physical security measures, including fences and surveillance systems. The report also noted that Pakistan had refused the American "permissive action links" system (or PALS), which prevented detonation without proper authorization, out of fear the Americans could leave special access codes in the devices that would allow them to prevent the detonation of the weapons. While some speculation exists relating to additional covert American safeguards on the Pakistani nuclear weapons - born of a genuine fear for the stability of Musharraf's regime - the existence of such additional safeguards has not been confirmed publicly. Haviv Rettig contributed to this report.